Last week a student thanked me for allowing him to fail.

Three months earlier, he had missed the due date for an online quiz, unsuccessfully petitioning for an extension no less than 10 times. Now, unexpectedly, he was thanking me for giving him a zero.

What changed?

As he explained, the consequence of his failure — even on a nearly inconsequential, five-point quiz — inspired him to work harder on other assignments to lessen the impact of those missing points. He began keeping a daily agenda of his assignments and checking his email with more regularity, so that he doesn’t miss important information (like the reminder email I had sent about the quiz).

The experience also taught him that quite often, failure is an important step toward success.

Think for a moment — really think — about what you picture for your child in the future. Regardless of what career or profession, location on Earth, stage of family life or any other specific aspect, you certainly imagine success and happiness. These two qualities are what we all wish our children to find and keep, what all teachers also hope for the thousands of children we teach.

Unfortunately, many of us sabotage our children’s abilities to obtain these very things by trying to protect them from the opposites: failure and unhappiness. If we do not allow them a bit of both, they will likely become adults who are unprepared when life lands some pretty solid punches to the gut later. We know this, as we’ve gone a few rounds with life ourselves.

Instead, we need to sometimes make the difficult decision to let them fail, and actually sit back and watch it happen. It can be excruciating, but it can also be cathartic.

As an article in The Atlantic put it:

Every single time we turn around and say, “I’ll just do that for you” or “Here, let me help you with that,” we are saying to them, “I don’t think you can do that for yourself.”

I would be heartbroken if this was the message I conveyed to a child, either at home or in the classroom.

This is the exact reason I am so careful when helping my own children with projects and homework. I try to help them through it by giving feedback rather than help them with it by jumping into the process. I always hope they will earn a good grade and therefore validation for their hard work and effort. Similarly, if they do not put time and effort into it, I hope they learn a lesson by earning a less than satisfactory grade.

The key is to be supportive after the failure, but simply help them with the heavy lifting rather than doing it all ourselves. Provide that cushion against the impact, softening the blow, but not entirely taking it away.

At MPA, teachers provide a safe environment for failure, for being wrong, for trying again and again and again because sometimes it takes a while to get things right. They are excellent at helping deflect that punch, helping to pick your children back up, providing that cushion until it is no longer needed.

As adults invested in a child’s success, we teachers and parents need to be OK with failure, because it is the best path to the success and happiness we all want for them.


By Jeanne Pagliaro

Ms. Pagliaro teaches Upper School science and leads the development of our science curriculum.